Fomenting Political Violence: Phantasy, Language, Media, Action
During an intensive two-day conference, speakers and audience delved into the deep layers of what lies at the heart of political violence. This interactive event was organised by Steffen Krueger (lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication at Oslo University), Karl Figlio (Prof. Emeritus at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, Essex) and Richard Barry (Prof. for Political Psychology, Bournemouth University). The quest was an in-depth exploration of the biographical, social and political conditions that allow the fomenting of politically motivated violence.
The organisers raised the following questions: Do language and phantasy feed into one another, fostering an extremist mentality? How can we conceptualise the way by which extremist phantasies, xenophobic slurs or ethnocentric rhetoric might be linked to racist violence or extremist criminal acts? In recognition of the need for an inter- or trans-disciplinary approach, the organisers suggested a ‘scenic’ methodology (Alfred Lorenzer). Of particular interest was understanding the process leading to political violence. Can psychoanalytic concepts such as ‘relationality’, ‘divisiveness’ or ‘affect’ shed light on what moves people from phantasy, expressed through language, into eruptions of physical violence?
Entering the Essex Business School building from the lower bus stop at the Colchester campus leads you gently uphill through an indoor landscaped garden, interspersed with sheltered sitting areas up to the conference hall. This was a relaxing welcome to what was a rather taxing subject.
Not surprisingly, most lectures raised more questions than they answered. However, over the two days, certain themes, concepts and ideas kept re-emerging. These eventually coalesced, in my view, into a ‘scenic’ contribution to the understanding of what foments political violence.
Think fomenting political violence, think transgenerational transmission
Vera King (Freud institute, Frankfurt), in her keynote speech ‘Fighting for Something Great’, teased out how migration and the related difficulties which adolescents face, often mistaken for ‘cultural otherness’, can create a powerful seedbed for extreme thinking. The constellation of inter-generational challenges, if overlooked, can lead to sentiments such as the above quote from a young immigrant. The pressure on young people to succeed against the odds of prejudice imposed by parents who failed to ‘make it’ can lead to great disappointment and feelings of worthlessness. The tension between adaptation to the host country and questions of identity presents challenges which can only be understood from an inter-generational viewpoint.
Roger Frie from British Columbia University highlighted the transgenerational transmission of memory that shapes prejudice in his discussion of the narrative of German suffering in WWII. Selective sharing about bombings, loss and starvation during the war, and selective silence about convictions and actions under Hitler, create a family narrative which stands at odds to Germany’s acceptance of responsibility for the Holocaust. Victims and guilt are topics edited out of the inter-generational narrative. Frie concludes that it is the absence of empathy (for the victims of the Nazis) that is at the basis of human prejudice. The ‘felt memory discourse’ within the family drowns out any official memoralisation of the Holocaust and instead fosters a cultural practice of avoidance passed down the generations. The pervasive narrative of victimhood casts a shadow filtering through time and memory. This then informs political intent today which could foster right wing extremism.
Lamprini Rori (Bournemouth University) finds that the political extremisms of Greece’s Golden Dawn is underpinned by a transgenerational imagined past. This re-created ‘history of suppression’ by the West is also used by the Hungarian ruling party to justify their extreme politically violent position (Jeffrey Murer, University of St Andrews).
When confronted with political violent potential in the individual or collective, it is crucial to look for potential roots in the inter-generational transmission of not only violent trauma, but also of wishes, hopes and imagined pasts.
Powerlessness and fear – real or imagined – as driving factors behind political violence
Julian Manley (Lecturer at the Psychosocial Research Unit, Lancashire) found in his unusual research on ‘social dreaming’ that British Muslims feel a persecution that is beyond racism. During an early morning session, the conference participants had the chance to experience ‘social dreaming’. Sitting in a quiet room, with the chairs arranged randomly to prevent direct eye contact, dreams and associations were shared randomly by participants. In time thematic patterns emerged which were used to create a scenic map. We noticed that a bleak urban landscape represented the backdrop to many shared dreams, something that reminded us of the conference poster, which to our surprise had not been around visibly during the conference. Manley’s findings were that young British Muslims’ experiences were dominated by disempowerment, persecution, fear and imprisonment, as well as dreams of finding a home outside Britain and of a welcoming community, similar to that of the ‘Caliphate’. In Manley’s view, unconscious experiences reflect a powerful reality that can influence the feelings and social and political decisions of young Muslims today.
Murer (see above) showed how the Hungarian right wing populists build their anti-democratic political aggression on the transmission of a constructed cultural trauma. Generations have understood Hungary’s history since Trianon in 1920 as a succession of Western oppressions. Such memorisation allows today’s politicians to portray a history that justifies right wing extremism.
A real or imagined sense of powerlessness can thus create a bedrock for extremist thinking or serve as a justification for aggressive political propaganda.
Julie Walsh (Warwick University), in her research of the women’s activist group ‘Femen’, drew a link between shame and narcissism. Using their half-naked bodies as weapons, shame jumps ship creating a form of micro violence. Shame’s totality is undermined by narcissism. Walsh creates the link between narcissistic states and their underlying affect of shame and self-aggression. Here, shame has turned and empowers social protest, thus confounding stable categories of power in relation to womanhood. In another example that examines questions of empowerment through social protest, Maria Brock (Birkbeck College, London) discussed the Russian rock group ‘Pussy Riot’. Putin’s response of disgust and dismissiveness, widely supported in Russia, aimed to reinforce social structures. She pointed out how social discourse can mirror psychic structures. Where the acknowledgement of historic violence has been missing from public discourse in Russia, it now resurfaces in contemporary language.
Problematic boundaries between the real and the imagined – leading to projections that appear to justify violent intent
A number of contributions tackled the boundary between what is real and what is phantasy from very different angles. These contributions showed how central this theme is to a process which moves from one of ideas, thoughts and feelings to one of aggressive language, and finally to politically motivated violent action.
David Morgan (Institute of Psychoanalysis, London) discussed ‘Inflammatory Projective Identification in Political Rhetoric’. In a psychoanalytic understanding of splitting and projection, fears and wants are split off from consciousness and projected onto the poor of society. This split is often transmitted through generations and carried in the unconscious. Asylum seekers, as the ‘other’, appear as a perfect object for projection of need and greed. One’s own identity is strengthened against the ‘other’. According to James Morgan (Goldsmith College, London), the reason that inflammatory rhetoric works so well is because it incites anxiety. Morgan quotes Nigel Farage: ‘We want our country back’. Rhetoric plays with the imaginary and symbolic, evoking a sense of loss as well as enjoyment, and in so doing disrupts reasoning. Drawing on the example of the former Yugoslavia and the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, Glenn Bowman (University of Kent), illustrates the connection between identification and politically motivated violence against former neighbours. The shift in identities happened rapidly and merged with the political imagination. When the rhetoric changed and leaders declared the Haifa killings an actual war, people on both sides repositioned their identities along ethnic lines into those of imagined potential victims. Fear thus shifts political and social identification, turning friends into foes within a day.
Deborah Wright (University of Essex) described how physical location or space can powerfully shift symbolic meaning. The consulting room, first experienced as safe haven for the patient, can, through internal and external experiences, shift into a place of imagined violence. Associations within the individual’s mind, triggered through previous experiences, invade the previously safe space in the imagination. Julian Manley’s contribution also touched on the brittle boundaries of the imagined, phantasy, dreaming and how these inform people’s reality. Jim Hopkins (UCL) described the dynamic that produces political violence from the perspective of in-group cohesion and out-group competition. He sees projective identification as the basis for this tendency, which in turn promotes conditions that lead to violent conflicts. Hopkins explains that the danger to our own survival as a species lies in these dynamics. It is this which makes it difficult to co-operate as single group.
A central problem that lies at the heart of addressing political violence is the question of how to disentangle reality from phantasy and to make this process visible. In other words, how can we conceptualise the fomenting process amidst the fluid boundaries of what is real and what is phantasy, without getting lost in translation?
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